Monday, October 23, 2006

Quotation of the day: Monika Otter

I am rereading for my graduate seminar Monika Otter's Inventiones, one of those rare books that seems deeper with each working through. I'd also describe it as prescient: far ahead of the field when it was published in 1996. Here are some lines on the function of otherworldly marvels in the twelfth-century historians William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh (was it required to be named William to write in the twelfth century?):
What comes between the text and the res gesta is, in short, an act of narration ... figured as 'magic.' The historical world to be narrated is not immediately accessible -- in part because it is past ... in part because no configuration of facts, events, raw materials is thus accessible; historia is always narratio rerum gestarum, an instrument to apprehend the res gestae, which is clearly differentiated from the res gestae themselves. The material to be apprehended is and remains foreign and intractable: this is the uneasy insight dramatized by the otherwise 'pointless' otherworld anecdotes.

I find myself chewing over these lines as if I were an Ouroboros and they were my caudal appendage (to steal an awkward metaphor from the comments section). Actually, what I like about the passage is that it resists the temptation to turn the medieval historian into yet another example of "Phosphor Reading By His Own Light" (stealing Wallace Stevens now). Rather, Otter pushes twelfth-century writers into realms they seem to "uneasily" but vividly perceive, spaces where history as an impossible art is on magnificent display.

[Addendum 10/24: on re-reading my post about re-reading Otter, I see that I didn't point out something I disagree with in her book. Otter describes Wiliam of Malmesbury as ultimately trapped within his own vision of historical inadequacy: mournfully aware of the deadness of the past, its irretrievabilty. William of Newburgh she allows a more unsettled relation to a past that can't be so drained of life. I'd argue that both writers are creatively enagaged artists of history, who use their materials to revivify the past in unexpected, culturally impure, and temporally messy ways. See, for example, this post on Animal innovation in William of Malmesbury.]


Eileen Joy said...

JJC has hit here on the one thing I really believe: that history is a narrative art [this point has been argued well enough by many historians already--i.e., Hayden White, Gabrielle Spiegel, F.K. Ankersmit, Michel de Certeau, etc.], but it is an art, I would also argue, that bears a special ethical responsibility to getting things as "right" as possible. My touchstone text for this is Edith Wyschogrod [scholar of religious thought and ethics; emerita from Rice Univ.], "An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others" [Chicago, 1998], where she writes that, with regard to the "fictionality" of textual artifacts of the past, they are also “a gift of the past to a present affected with futurity” that is inscribed with “the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” ("An Ethics of Remembering," p. 248). This accords, also, with another imperative for the historian I try to always remember, from Walter Benjamin, that “[t]here is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a special claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply” (“Theses on a Philosophy of History,” p. 254).

Karl Steel said...

EJ: Double post an eerie illustration of something.

was it required to be named William to write in the twelfth century?

I just told my students about the William party in, I think, 12th-c. London (only knights named William allowed in). I read about this in I think one of R. Bartlett's books or maybe even in MIMs or ODM?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's kind of like George Foreman naming all his sons "George." Here is what I wrote about William in Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity:
"William" was originally a Frankish name, bestowed upon the eldest son of a famous Viking (Hrólfr, AKA Rollo, founder of the Norman dynasty) in order to give a veneer of culture to his progeny. The Normans adopted the appellation with gusto. Robert Bartlett provides a wonderful example of what this multiplication of Williams could bring about: a Christmas court in Normandy in 1171 attended by, among other guests, 110 knights named William [England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, p. 540.]. These Williams segregated themselves in a private room and refused to allow anyone not bearing their name to dine with them. As in Normandy so in England: William was quickly established as the single most popular name in the Middle Ages, adopted as ardently by the lower classes as it was by the aristocracy.